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What to Do With Your Loot: Renovating the Benin Displays at World Museum

25 October 2019 by Zachary

The artist Leo Asemota at World Museum 10 October 2019 looking at documents in the museum’s Benin archives.

If you have been following World Museum blogs or social media you will have seen that we are in the first stages of renovating our outdated World Cultures Gallery.

The project focuses on a few key display areas of the larger gallery, one of which is the Benin exhibit within the Africa displays. The project provides an opportunity to explore ways of re-thinking Benin’s history and culture as part of a wider global story to make it more relevant and responsive to contemporary audiences in Liverpool and beyond. New and engaging content for the renovated display will be developed around key questions in themed workshops with a small group of Liverpool residents with a particular interest in the past, present, and future implications of holding and displaying Benin collections in museums.. Workshops will be facilitated by Leo Asemota, an artist from Benin whose practice interrogates and links historical and cultural themes from both Britain and Benin City. A couple of weeks ago Leo came to Liverpool to explore the museum’s Benin-related archives in preparation for the workshops.

The museum’s archive includes photographs of Benin created by a Liverpool trader in the early 1890s, but Leo was also able to look through various other archival letters, newspaper articles, publications, and even hand-written accounts. Many of these related to the so-called British ‘punitive expedition’ sent to subjugate Benin City in February 1897, during which British forces looted thousands of royal artworks in bronze, brass and ivory from the palace complex. What really caught Leo’s eye, though, was something more contemporary; a newspaper article from 1981 cut from the lifestyle pages of a Sunday broadsheet newspaper. The article profiles an up-market shoe designer boasting a clientele of international celebrities. It featured the image of a Benin queen mother’s head used as a prop for advertising a collection of zebra-patterned shoes. Leo was instantly struck by this image and selected the cutting as an item of particular interest for the project.

As an example of cultural appropriation for commercial purposes, the 1981 image is especially shocking for the way that it thoughtlessly replicates the desecratory structure of much earlier photographs taken in Benin in February 1897.

British officers seated on looted royal altarpieces in the Benin palace compound Benin City, 1897.

Officers with the February 1897 British punitive expedition seated on looted royal altarpieces in the Benin palace compound. Benin City, 1897. Part of an image by an unidentified photographer displayed on a graphic panel in the Benin displays at World Museum Liverpool.

Image from a 1981 newspaper cutting showing Benin Queen Mother head used as a prop for advertising a collection of zebra-patterned shoes.

Image from a 1981 newspaper cutting in the Karpinski archive at World Museum, taken from the lifestyle pages of a Sunday broadsheet newspaper. The image shows Benin Queen Mother head used as a prop for advertising a collection of zebra-patterned shoes.

Photograph of a replica Benin Queen Mother head made for sale from an original in the British Museum. World Museum collection.

In these photographs British officers with the punitive expedition are shown seated in triumph on looted brass altarpieces and other treasures stripped from the ancestral shrines in the royal palace and piled up in the palace courtyard. The image from 1981 represents a peculiar reincarnation of the photographs taken 84 years earlier in Benin. It activates a toxic colonial memory in order to urge wealthy customers to spend their ‘loot’ on zebra-striped shoes.

Museums, as theatres of memory-making and storehouses of ill-gotten colonial props, have much to do in helping to re-examine and counter the violently-fashioned memory-scapes of our colonial pasts. The workshops with Leo Asemota at World Museum are intended to play a key part in the process!

What does World Cultures mean to you?

20 September 2019 by Emma Martin

We are curious. We want to know what the words ‘World Cultures’ mean to you? It is the name of World Museum’s biggest gallery, but does it really display the world? In May 2019, as we began the process of changing the World Cultures gallery we asked visitors to share their thoughts on that very question: What does World Cultures mean to you? We’ve received nearly 200 replies, so a big ‘Thank You’ if you took the time to post your comments. While each postcard was written from a personal point of view, we wanted to see if your responses had things in common that could help us make sense of what visitors get from a visit to the ‘World Cultures’ gallery. We have read and digitally scanned every card and with the help of Tim Medland, a University of Leicester MA student, we have identified a number of themes and words that appear regularly in your responses, which you can see in Tim’s word cloud. Read more…

What next for human remains collections at the World Museum?

19 June 2019 by Emma Martin

Emma Martin, Senior Curator at World Museum introducing the discussion with a copy of the Human Remains policy that is currently being reviewed. Left to right: Angela Stienne, Constantine Eliopoulous, Ashley Cooke, Ben Jones and Chrissy Partheni. Image by Donna Young

This is a guest blog by Angela Stienne (Science Museum, London) who recently chaired two public debates on human remains in museums at World Museum for the #WMWhereNext initiative.

On Friday 17 May, World Museum hosted two public debates on human remains in museums, as part of the LightNight Liverpool festival. The aim of these debates was to probe public opinion on the retention and display of human remains in museums through votes via smartphones, but also to engage the public in a convivial conversation on a very important topic for the museum: what next for human remains collections at the World Museum? I was invited by the World Museum to moderate the debate, as part of my Medicine Galleries Research Fellowship at the Science Museum, which focuses on human remains in the 21st century museum. I am here sharing some thoughts on this very inspiring and thoughtful evening, and what this means for the future of engagements with human remains in museums. Read more…

Where Next for the World Cultures gallery?

10 April 2019 by Emma Martin

If you’ve visited World Museum you’ll know the World Cultures gallery has incredible collections from Africa, Asia, Oceania and The Americas, but the presentation is now out of date and perpetuates stereotypes and assumptions about people and places. I am one of a group of people working in the museum who is increasingly questioning the relevance of these displays and thinking about new ways to use objects to understand our collective past, present and future.

We agree that the gallery needs to change, but the question is how to do it?

Read more…

Making connections through online collections

18 May 2017 by Emma Martin

A chod pan is worn by Tibetan Buddhist monks or lamas during religious ceremonies. The five panels feature the tathagatas or the Five Celestial Buddhas.

Sometimes, correcting mistakes found in the museum’s records leads to new and completely unexpected connections. This recently happened to me. I’ve spent more than ten years working my way through the Tibet collections here at World Museum. As I document the collections I try and fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge: do I know who made the object (often I don’t)? Do I know who once owned the objects (sometimes I do)? How did they collect the object? What do we know about the collector who sold or donated the objects to the museum? Read more…

Drawing inspiration from the museum stores

21 August 2014 by Zachary

Atta Kwami sketching African artefacts in the museum store

Atta Kwami sketching African artefacts in the museum store. Image courtesy Pamela Clarkson.

Not all museum projects are part of a long-term plan. Some come about by chance and it was through a stroke of good luck that I was at World Museum when the Ghanaian artist and curator Atta Kwami paid a visit to the African displays in our World Cultures gallery a few months ago. On that occasion I was able to meet Atta over a coffee in the museum café to discuss his current work.  Read more…

Uncovering the fascinating costumes and ornaments of northeastern India

24 July 2014 by Emma Martin

1965.177

Chrissy Partheni, Head of Museum Partnerships has been working in Ethnology to widen her curatorial skills. She has recently started to document a fascinating collection from northeastern India and here she gives us an insight into the objects she is working with: Read more…

Reconnecting with the ancestors at World Museum

30 June 2014 by Zachary

Patrice and Iva

Patrice and Iva in World Cultures Gallery with a portrait of their grandfather and great grandfather.

As curator of the African collections at World Museum I often take groups of visitors round our World Cultures Gallery. I also take individuals and smaller groups, with special interests, behind the scenes to show them our stored collections. Many are students or scholars involved in special research projects, and although they often get excited about what they find in our collections, their interests are mostly intellectual and aesthetic. But recently I had a visit that was rather different because it was from cousins Patrice Wellesley Cole and Iva Johnson.

Read more…

Ancient African Empires

22 April 2014 by Mitty

bronze sculpture of a woman's head

Benin sculpture of the Queen Mother’s head

Fred, an Education Demonstrator at the International Slavery Museum, has written about one of the fascinating aspects of African history that you can find out about in the museum:

“As a slavery museum, we also learn about West Africa. European slave traders justified their mistreatment and exploitation of African people by painting a picture of Africa as a simple or “primitive” place compared to European civilisations. In reality, a series of powerful empires, with skilled craftsmen and complex societies existed in West Africa before and during the period of transatlantic slavery, including the once mighty Kingdom of Benin. We’ve added new objects to our Life in West Africa session to reflect this. Read more…

Magic at the museum

22 January 2014 by Zachary

Piece of stone

Irish type stone axe head (or ‘celt’) found in Parliament Fields, Toxteth Park, in 1866. This is probably the stone axe used to cure the Irish lad mentioned in the 1897 report.

World Museum is currently hosting the ‘Magic Worlds’ exhibition. It’s a fun and child-centred look at the miraculous, fantastical, illusional and folkloric – including everything from magicians to fairytales. The exhibition got me thinking about the role that ‘magic’ has played in the museum collection that I curate – the African collection. It’s true to say that there is a darker side to the long relationship that museums have had with all things ‘magical’.  Read more…



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We try to ensure that the information provided on our blog is accurate and that appropriate permissions to use images have been sought. The opinions in each blog are very much those of the individuals writing.